Reviewed by Donna Stonecipher
Curiouser and curiouser. That’s the trajectory of Mary Jo Bang’s four books, culminating in The Eye Like a Strange Balloon. As her work progresses, it gets marvelously odder, and the singularity of her vision asserts itself with more and more force. To use one of Bang’s own important reference points, the poems seem to fall deeper and deeper like Alice into the rabbit hole.
The Eye Like a Strange Balloon is an ekphrastic book: each poem has a work of art attached to it, which assumes the title. The poem, one presumes, is inspired by the work. Such a strategy presents questions for the reader. Must I know the work of art to “get” the poem? How much am I missing if I don’t know it? Ekphrasis is a wonderfully elastic practice. There are ekphrastic books like Cole Swensen’s Such Rich Hour, for example, which is based on one work of art (the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry); and there are books like Bang’s, in which 37 different artists are represented (two of them film directors), and only a few of the artworks are canonical (such as Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”). Only an art fiend (and Bang herself) would know all the artworks in question, but Bang is so meticulous that this fact doesn’t detract from the pleasures of the poems. Reading her work is such an intensely visual experience, in fact, that trying to keep one picture in mind while being presented with picture after picture in the poems would be pretty much impossible. The lion’s share of the artworks (17) are by Sigmar Polke, the multifarious German pop artist of sorts whose obsession with artifacts matches Bang’s. Where they diverge is that whereas Polke’s style can change radically from artwork to artwork--such that standing in a museum in a roomful of Polkes, one would never guess that they were all made by the same person--Bang has an instantly recognizable style that is unmistakably her own.
That style is a style of impaction. The poems proceed by small, tight units of short sentences or phrases or even single words. The content of the units is often stretched to the limits of heterogeneity. It is rare that one of the poems in the book remains within a single visual event or narrative; rather, the poems generally move from thought to thought as if under a great press of referents and signifiers. This pressure begins in the very titles of the poems, in which Bang has sometimes included a parenthetical further title, such as “The End (Or, the Falling Out)” that doesn’t belong to the artwork, but adds another signifying unit to the poem and signals the dizzying negotiation with referents and phenomena (and meanings) to come. Teases of narrative--often domestic dramas--are sacrificed to the greater excitement of association, of the mind using its cloisonné wings to fly from idea to idea, daring the reader to keep up. Take, for example, the opening of the poem “Spots”:
A pink-faced lovebird cooed from its roost.
A box had been opened, a vase broken.
And against the green wall, the sea was sliding
The lovebird, the box, the vase, the green wall, and the sea are all whole images, but the velocity of the poem transforms them into fragments. Bang’s poetry moves at the hurtling speed of the 21st century, but never loses its desire to linger.
The visual is, of course, the primary concern of the poems, which are full of eyes, mirrors, cameras, lenses, monocles, microscopes, and blind people. There are also repeated references to scenes, sequences, televisions, stages, operas, and films--all forms of constructed experience that the eye watches. The eye, therefore, is complicit in the artificializing of experience through its representation. Windows appear in many of the poems--but then, so do curtains. The window, the frame, the stage, the screen, the page: all are devices that crop and order experience, that enforce rationality out of the chaos of the world. As Bang herself writes: “There is that box / into which we are drawn.” But the visual as consciously constructed illusion predominates: a beautiful castle is only stage scenery, the cat is wearing a cat mask. The artwork haunting each poem adds to the multiplicity of possible meanings that Bang’s poems have always invited.
Bang is also interested in the construction of pictures that don’t fully make the leap from the abstract to the concrete. What, for example, is a “Swiss circle,” and how might I picture a Swiss circle rising--or, for that matter, rising “canonical”? Or, what is a “Babylon of lean slab forms”? I am reminded of the Surrealists and those paintings with shapes that almost resolve themselves into objects the viewer could easily identify--sausages, musical instruments--but not quite. If everything was easily “see-able” in the poems, Bang would be less faithful to her aesthetic. However, the latter line especially points up another crucial aspect of Bang’s work, and that is that the poems proceed as much by sound as by sight. One uses one’s “visual ear” to read her poems. Puns and double entendres turn into images. Images cede themselves to sonic grandeur. It is this high-stakes game of the visual and the aural, and their interplay as in a whirling two-butterfly mating dance, that give Bang’s poems their particular charge. She writes: “The seen blurs / into the just heard.” And: “‘Being had become an eye . . .’” where Emily Dickinson’s famous “and Being, but an Ear” is turned, well, if not on its ear, then on its eye. The poems’ sound effects--rhyme of all kinds, alliteration, assonance, repetition, puns--are not just tricks up the poet’s sleeve, but actually construct meaning--or construct, to be more precise, meaningful ambiguity. This ambiguity can at times sound close to arch.
But archness is courted in the book. Things are always falling in the poems; the word “fall” appears again and again. It is Alice falling and falling through the rabbit hole, but it is also the heroine falling to the floor for effect, the willow tree’s falling branches, the curtain falling on the act. Alice in Wonderland is really about adolescence, about the painful process of growth that one has not asked for and isn’t particularly happy about; and something of this reluctance to be dragged from innocence to experience makes its way into Bang’s poems. In the first poem, “Rock and Roll Is Dead, The Novel Is Dead, God Is Dead, Painting Is Dead,” she writes, “We’re in this season’s floral print / jammies and feeling very sleepy.” Back when we were in our jammies, we believed in things like God and rock and roll; we were happy to be wearing--we noticed that we were wearing--this season’s floral print. It’s a postlapsarian world in Bang’s poems, and falling is a way to escape its injunctions. It’s also a noir world, but the darkness is so glamorous, so bejeweled, that one is entranced by it. This dialectic between innocence and experience is further signaled by a recurrent motif of coyness, and by seemingly rhetorical questions that are quickly answered: “For what? For this” and “Is everything / all right? It was--.” Questions are a child’s luxury, an invitation to contemplation that can’t be indulged in among the breakneck speed of adult experience; there’s no room for innocence--except in the degraded form of coyness--and a decent interval is a thing of the past. But even experience itself is constructed: an “I” has an experience in a brothel, for example, but it’s actually a brothel diorama.
The tone of the poems is one of Bang’s greatest accomplishments. She can, in lines like
What is a theory
but a tentacle reaching for a wafer of reason.
The inevitable gap tragic. Sure, tragic.
manage to sound a complex of notes at once--resigned, ironic, aggrieved, reassuring, nefarious. It’s impossible to pin down the tone of the thrilling “Sure, tragic.” In lines like “Sex with an effigy. // How much fun could that be? Tsk. Tsk,” the tone is sly, naughty, and somehow sad all at once.
The speakers of the poems don’t, like Alice, get to wake up and find that this complexity is all a dream; though, with the amount of sleeping and dreaming going on in the poems, the reader might be forgiven for construing that as a desire. After all, as one of the poems begins, “We were going toward nothing / all along.”